William Harris Crawford

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William Harris Crawford

American politician William Harris Crawford (1772-1834) was a leader of the Old Republican wing of the Jeffersonian-Republican party.

William H. Crawford was born in western Virginia on Feb. 24, 1772. At the end of the American Revolution, William's family moved to South Carolina but by 1786 settled near Augusta, Ga. For several years Crawford worked on the family farm and acquired the rudiments of an education. By 1804, having built a respectable law practice, he married and established a homestead (later expanded into a plantation) near Lexington, Ga.

Politics rather than law, however, was to be the focus of Crawford's considerable ambitions. Large in stature, handsome, magnanimous and affable though somewhat coarse, and with a limitless store of entertaining anecdotes, Crawford quickly became a popular figure. Building his career as the upland leader of a powerful coalition of well-to-do and conservative merchant and planter interests, Crawford secured election to the Georgia Legislature in 1803. Within 4 years he succeeded to the U.S. Senate. By 1808 he had emerged as the single most powerful political figure in the state. In the Senate, Crawford spoke for the Old Republican section of the Jeffersonian party, emphasizing states' rights, governmental economy, and simplicity.

The pragmatic search for office rather than ideological consistency was, however, Crawford's main characteristic. In 1807 he opposed Thomas Jefferson's embargo and by 1811 had become not only an apologist for federally controlled internal improvements but one of the most enthusiastic advocates of rechartering the Bank of the United States. After a brief turn as U.S. minister to France, Crawford resigned and was appointed secretary of war and then secretary of the Treasury by President James Madison (a post Crawford held through both of James Monroe's administrations). In 1816, though publicly disavowing his candidacy, Crawford secured within the Jeffersonian-Republican caucus 54 votes to Monroe's 65 for the party's presidential nomination. During the next years Crawford worked vigorously to strengthen his national political base, using the patronage and influence provided by his control of the Treasury.

After Monroe's reelection in 1820, sparring for the election of 1824 began among the leading candidates—Crawford, John Quincy Adams, John Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay. By 1823 Crawford had patched together an impressive, if motley, following of Southern Old Republicans and certain Northern commercial interests. For a while Crawford seemed the leading candidate. In 1823, however, he was stricken with paralysis. His followers vainly attempted to sustain his candidacy. In the final election Crawford ran a poor third.

With Crawford's physical condition permanently impaired and his political strength dissipated, his national career was at an end. He spent the rest of his life in Georgia, serving as judge of the state's Northern Judicial Circuit from 1827 until his death.

Further Reading

Crawford's personal papers were lost shortly after his death; consequently, there can be no definitive biography. The best is Phillip Jackson Green's sympathetic The Life of William Harris Crawford (1965), although Green does not incorporate recent scholarship. Still useful is J. E. D. Shipp, Giant Days: or, The Life and Times of William H. Crawford (1909).

Additional Sources

Mooney, Chase Curran, William H. Crawford, 1772-18, Lexington University Press of Kentucky 1974. □

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